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Without Tiger, British is a big Open question

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For the first time since early in Bill Clinton's second term, Tiger Woods will be absent from a major golf tournament.

The world's top-ranked golfer is recovering from knee surgery and will miss his first major in more than a decade, raising the question of whether fans will bother tuning in to this weekend's action from Royal Birkdale.

"The 'Tiger Factor' is real. There are stats to prove it," said broadcaster Mike Tirico, who will head ABC's weekend coverage of the tournament. "And we may see some of that this week."

The site of a major tournament without Woods roaming the fairways is unchartered territory, but there is evidence to show his absence can depress television ratings and ticket sales significantly. At this year's AT&T National at Congressional, television ratings for the final round fell nearly 50 percent from the year before, and attendance dropped by 23 percent. Of the four FedEx Cup events last year, each of the three events Woods played attracted nearly twice as many viewers as the one he skipped.

There is already some discussion of broadcasters giving away free advertising to those sponsors who paid for commercials under the belief Woods would play.

For players, of course, the absence of the three-time British Open winner gives them more of a fighting chance at victory; there is no clear-cut favorite entering the tournament.

"It's a mixture of disappointment that [Woods] is not going to be there because he adds a lot to the atmosphere of the tournament in general, but at the same time, [it] blasts the field wide open, doesn't it?" Irish golfer Graeme McDowell said.

ABC and TNT have added some new wrinkles to their coverage of the tournament, though not necessarily in response to Woods' absence. ABC said yesterday it will employ five-time British Open champion Tom Watson as an analyst Saturday and Sunday. The network also said it will use aerial shots of the course for the first time, while new ESPN columnist Rick Reilly will provide on-air commentary.

The tournament will go on, even without Woods.

"I do believe that the championship - at least in the last 10 years - has spoken for itself," ABC coordinating producer Mike McQuade said. "You've had some good moments and bizarre moments happen at the championship. Someone's name is going to be on the jug, and they're not going to put an asterisk next to it. There's going to be a golf tournament, and we'll cover it."

Indeed, the British Open has provided some of golf's most compelling drama in recent years, and many of the best moments have not included Woods. Last year's Open at Carnoustie featured a win by Padraig Harrington in a four-hole playoff over Sergio Garcia. In 2004, Todd Hamilton won in a playoff over Ernie Els. And the 1999 Open, also at Carnoustie, featured Jean Van de Velde's notorious triple-bogey collapse on the 72nd hole.

"Just because Tiger's not here doesn't mean there won't be drama," Tirico said.

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